Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Legacy to Be Proud Of: Craig Tufts

Thousands of backyards across the United States are listed as "Certified Wildlife Habitat" through the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Habitat Program. We applied and qualified, and we're still making radical changes year by year, season by season, to improve our backyard habitat for wildlife.

This program was the brainchild of Craig Tufts, the Chief Naturalist and Director of Citizen Science Programs with the NWF. I don't believe any words are necessary to illustrate Craig's commitment to preserving wild places, converting would-be sterile yards to useful patches of viable habitat for everything with fur, feathers, fins, or scales, and his commitment to engaging the general public with nature. But here are a few from his staff page from the NWF web site:

Tufts is a natural history specialist with interests in native plants, birds, butterflies and other insects and their inter-relationships. As a staff member with NWF for more than 30 years, Tufts currently serves as chief naturalist and oversees the FrogWatch USA program as well as development of NWF’s Wildlife Watch. Tufts developed NWF’s hallmark Backyard Wildlife Habitat program and assisted in the evolution of its Schoolyard and Community Habitat efforts. He is the author of two books on wildlife gardening and has appeared on numerous television programs dealing with this topic. Tufts received his bachelor’s degree in wildlife conservation and a master’s degree in environmental education from Cornell University. He most recently edited NWF’s new North American field guides to Birds and Insects.

Sadly, Craig lost his year-long battle with cancer yesterday. We've lost a champion in the environmental effort, but think of the legacy Craig left in his wake. Not only are there untold acres available for wildlife, there are an untold number of kids experiencing the diversity of life, day by day, right outside their back doors. I look at the diversity of plants and animals in our yard and appreciate what we've been able to accomplish, but that pales in comparison to the feeling I get when I see the excitement in our daughter's eyes when she's engaged with the flowers, the fruits, the bees, the butterflies, the dragon- and damselflies, the frogs and toads, the birds, the mammals . . . the list goes on and on.

And we know, because of these experiences, she'll become an excellent steward when she comes of age -- in no small part due to Craig's efforts. Craig will be missed, but will always be remembered, each time we step out into our yard.


Friday, June 19, 2009

Great Blue Heron: Gone Fishin'

Yesterday I posted a teaser, for which I apologize. I'm no fan of cliff-hangers. I want resolution now, I don't want to carry it around for a week, something conditioned by those one-hour CSI, Law&Order, and Desperate Housewives shows. That said, I'm glad you're back to see how the Great Blue Heron went from "I'd like a fish" to "I got one!"

Heron sightings are abundant this spring in Sapsucker Woods, you only need to look at the nest they built to find one. During, or shortly after, their nest construction I found one perched on a downed log near the middle of the pond. Hoping to photograph the bird in flight, maybe delivering a stick back to the nest, I set up the camera and waited. I didn't catch a return to the nest sequence, but watch the embedded slideshow below (man, I hope this works) to watch what I captured. You can also visit the web album to view the (larger) still images.

If that worked, you will have witnessed a couple of events I found interesting. First, I won the staring contest. You can see in the first slide the intense glaring I received for about a half-minute, and then the moment of victory (second slide) when the bird was distracted by something in the water. But I had no time to savor the moment.

The second event relates to heron foraging behavior. As Great Blues are fairly common almost anywhere there's water, and they are such large, easily observable birds, I'm guessing most everyone has watched one snag a prey item at one point or another. If I'm right, you're familiar with the methodical stalking as they patiently step their way through the water or across a field, leaning forward as they sight a fish, amphibian, reptile, mammal, bird - they're really not that picky.

The actual capture takes but a second. A rapid thrust of the neck and head, and voila! Before you can blink they've got something tightly squeezed between their mandibles.

What I've never seen was a heron jump in the water from dry land, or floating log, after something, and almost fully submerge below the surface. But this one did, and, best of all, it came up with a snack. I particularly like the image of the bird returning its gaze towards me with the, "That's right, homeclown, I got the fish!"

It's always satisfying to witness a successful hunt, the food web in action, especially when it includes a new method of food capture. At least, this was a new method to me, perhaps you've seen this before?


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Photo Files: Great Blue Heron, With Snack

From the photo files of 12 May 2009 . . .

Great Blue Heron after capturing a snack.
Click on the photo for a larger image.

In early May, after/during the construction of the Great Blue Heron nest at Sapsucker Woods, I found one of the herons standing quietly, taking in its surroundings. As I sat and watched, also quietly, it captured a relatively small fish. I was lucky enough to capture the sequence, which ended with the bird flying off to the opposite shore where I lost track of it.

Next up: the full fishing sequence.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Pro-garden Forces Thwart Enemy Combatants

After a long and seemingly successful weekend in the garden I felt our escapades warranted a news release.

Pro-garden Forces Thwart Enemy Combatants, Shore Up Resources for Continued Campaign
15 June 2009, Horseheads, NY
For immediate release

This week saw a renewed effort in the campaign to rid Prospect Hill of unwanted weeds. Pro-garden forces moved early in an attempt to catch the invaders off guard. "Our goal was to eliminate as many of them as quickly as possible," said Noflickster, one of the attack's coordinators. "We've seen an astronomical rise in recruitment in recent weeks. Our intelligence told us now was the time to strike."

Exotic turf grasses and Broadleaf Plantain were discovered in gardens previously unknown to harbor weeds, but they weren't the the primary target. "Dandelions," responded Reina, the youngest member of the gardening trio, when asked which plants were the main focus. "And Creeping Charlie. But mostly dandelions."

Dandelion numbers have spiked in recent weeks, due to a wet spring that saw very little in the way of lawn care. "You've got to take them out before they develop the seed-bearing parachutes. That's the real trick," advises The Gardener. "Mechanical problems delayed our usual start of garden maintenance, but we're making up for it now. Unfortunately, it's a lot harder when they're established."

The gardens have survived previous incursions, some even thriving following skirmishes with nonnative species. "After a lengthy weeding bout last year we planted dozens of additional native plants to help suppress the uprisings," reminisces Noflickster. "Bee Balm, Purple Coneflower, Black-eyed Susan - we've had great success by adding these annuals following earlier weeding bouts." After removing the undesirable plants, favorable species are transplanted from other areas of the yard to augment the intended species. "They grow quickly and can cover a pretty large area, keeping the exotic species from recolonizing."

"We're hoping the Labrador Violet, a quick-spreading flowering plant useful as ground-cover, will eventually provide an impenetrable layer to weeds. The main focus of this garden," The Gardener gestures towards a long, narrow stretch of shrubby growth, "are berry producing bushes. Winterberry, Serviceberry, Spicebush, a couple of evergreen Inkberry; they're all in there."

Why the hard-line focus on native species? "Exotic species don't belong here," begins Noflickster. "Our native wildlife doesn't know what to do with them. They generally won't accept them as a food source, so the plants are left unchecked, outcompeting the useful plants and turning a once-diverse habitat into a monoculture. Native insects, birds, amphibians, mammals - they all disappear from these functional deserts. Wait, scratch that analogy, deserts are actually a natural, functioning ecosystem . . . don't print what I said about deserts."

"We're trying to increase the diversity in our corner of the world, and adding native plants is the surest way to promote that goal," continues The Gardener. "We'll be back again to fight another day."

The weary gardeners finished the battle with a trip to a local garden center, stocking up on supplies. "Deer netting, Japanese Beetle traps, a lawn edger, loppers, pruning shears, . . . not only are we after the herbaceous plants, but the woody invasives, too. Autumn Olive, mostly," Noflickster reports he has spent hours over the years removing the fast-growing shrubs from their property, grudgingly noting it may be a futile effort. "Look around our hill and you'll see dozens, if not hundreds, of Autumn Olives, each producing hundreds of berries a season." These berries seem to grow viable offspring under any condition, "especially if that condition is on our property," continued Noflickster. "Seriously, what that's all about?"

Chemicals are not on the shopping list. "We are trying to manually manage our property as much as possible," says The Gardener. "We've relented and used glyphosate on a few of the more persistent invaders, like Japanese Knotweed - that thing is just scary. Did you know any part of an existing plant can propagate a new plant? A leaf dropped on the ground can become a new individual? A bit of stem left on the ground can start a new population? Don't take the mower to that beast!"

With the exception of the knotweed and another seemingly unstoppable invasive plant, Garlic Mustard, casualties of the day are unceremoniously piles in a final resting place, a Potter's Field, known as "the Compost Pile." Ironically, the decomposed bodies of the removed weeds are reintroduced to the garden to fertilize the surviving native species. Noflickster's pride shows, "It's the ultimate, 'comes around, goes around' story, the circle of life completed. And hopefully it benefits our native wildlife - and we can get back to birding again, soon!"

With a little luck, and a lot of persistence, Prospect Hill will be a haven for native wildlife for generations to come.


Friday, June 12, 2009

Lunchtime In Sapsucker Woods

How long can you stare at a computer screen? Seriously, how long do you last before you lean back, rub your eyes, and finally stand, stretch, and walk away? I have no idea where my threshold lies but I fired right past it yesterday. I didn't pace myself, jumped right in without any warm up, and over exerted myself. After continuing to stare straight through the lunch hour (when did lunch ever last an hour, anyway?) I decided to refresh, regroup, and recenter with a late lunchtime walk through Sapsucker Woods.

I grabbed the camera in case I should stumble across anything photogenic, but I mostly just let my feet and mind wander. If I had to have a goal it was to check on the Great Blue Heron nest that I wrote about earlier.

Great Blue Heron NestParental Great Blue Heron stretching, preening; somewhere in there is the chick.

It's still there. Not only is it still there, the parents are still routinely visiting it, especially now that it includes a . . . drum roll, please . . . a chick! Monday morning, 08 June, Charles of Contemplative Nuthatch fame and Sapsuckerwoods notoriety (if you Twitter) watched a parent regurgitate a meal to a chick. On June 11th, Laura Erickson, Birdscope editor and known from various spots on the web including Laura's Birding Blog, Twin Beaks, and "For the Birds" podcasts, posted the first image of the chick.

During my tenure staring at the nest, waiting for an interaction that would be overwhelmingly cute or intoxicatingly horrific, nothing happened. One parent lay hunkered down when I first saw the nest, eventually stood and preened for what felt like hours, then disappeared - I never saw it fly nor re-hunker.

Water LilyWater lilies cover the backside of the pond, many blooming.
I'm not sure of the identity, could be the native Nymphaea odorata.

No matter. Decompression was complete, I started back towards the building. Along the Wilson Trail (north side) you cannot walk more than three steps without running into American Redstarts, one of my favorite warblers: strikingly beautiful, generously accommodating.

American RedstartAmerican Redstarts line the Wilson Trail between the
Sherwood Platform and the Fuller Wetlands.

The most interesting sighting wasn't avian at all, but reptilian. I stood on a boardwalk that stretches into the Fuller Wetlands, staring at the back of a painted turtle picking at some nondescript, brown underwater vegetation. While wondering how to shoot it (photographically, people, photographically!) I noticed a snake loosely coiled on a handful of bent reeds, laying over the water. The perch looked as precarious as the heron's stick nest, but it was clearly a solid support.

Northern Water SnakeTentatively identified as a Northern Water Snake, I welcome corrections
and/or thoughts by those more experienced with snake identification.

I made a few mental notes, took a few photographs, and quickly found an online field guide once back at my desk. Of the 17 species that occur in New York the best fit I found is a Northern Water Snake, Nerodia sipedon. The descriptions I found online seem to fit, though I don't see any trace of any pattern - just solid, dark brown. Which, I gleaned, older adults can show, while younger snakes typically show a banded pattern near the head. The lack of any pattern would suggest this snake is an old timer. Any thoughts or comments welcome and appreciated!

Northern Water Snake
Amazing how the day improved after a short walk in the woods.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Who Am I? Answered!

In my previous post I asked if you could identify which bird sang a song that gave this spectrogram, the trick being you could only "see" the sound - I didn't give any audio.

Territorial Bird SongClick the image for a larger version.

Nate commented on the repeated up-and-down pattern, which translates to notes that are rising and falling. During June we have a few birds whose song fits the rising-falling pattern, but only one who matches the fluidity of this song. Have a listen to the video below to hear the actual song. Easier to identify this way, yes?

Click to play - you may need to turn up the volume
as I lost sound quality while making the video.

Congratulations go to Nate for correctly identifying the songster as a Common Yellowthroat. I hoped some guesses would come in for American Robin, Red-eyed or Warbling Vireo, possibly Scarlet Tanager, all species plausible in our yard that have an element of rising-and-falling songs. Three of those species could be eliminated by the continuous nature of the song: American Robin, Red-eyed Vireo, and Scarlet Tanager would all have pauses between phrases, which would show up as breaks of silence between the elements of the song.

Spectrogram of American Robin songIn addition to being a lower frequency, this image of an
American Robin song shows clear breaks between the phrases.

Warbling Vireos sing a continuous song, but it is much buzzier than a Common Yellowthroat's song. This would be shown by heavily modulated notes on the spectrogram, while the yellowthroat's song is characterized by smooth, pure notes rising and falling.

Common YellowthroatA Common Yellowthroat belts out its song.

Now I know two things: the new recording units are working out pretty well, and you have to get up earlier than a yellowthroat to put one over on Nate. I'll come up with a harder one next time!

Common Yellowthroat and American Robin recorded 07 Jun 2009 in Horseheads, NY.
Common Yellowthroat photographed May 2009, Spencer Crest Nature Center, Corning, NY.


Who Am I?

Time to get your spectrogram interpretations on. We're testing new recording units for our flight call research and I recently placed one on my roof. Yes, migration may be winding down, but it's certainly not over: this weekend I recorded a Blackpoll Warbler flying over, so birds are still moving.

Of course, the unit records everything, not just migrating birds. This weekend's recordings included our resident coyotes, neighborhood dogs, drive-by cars, peepers, Bullfrogs, and toads, myself on the phone (note to self: take phone calls on the other side of the house), and the morning chorus.

Territorial Bird SongClick the image for a larger version.

Any guesses which territorial bird is singing in this spectrogram? This is an image, a visual clue. I'll put up the video later so you can hear the song. For a primer on interpreting a spectrogram check this web page.


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The WSB Scouting Chronicles, Day One

Someone recently lamented birding competitions like the World Series of Birding can be so impersonal: you hear about "the team," then you hear a final number, and if you search, a species list. What you don't hear are the details of the human experience, how those species were added, and how others were missed. Those stories are arguably the most interesting part of a Big Day. Though I can't offer all the details on what happened on the Big Day I can highlight some tales from the scouting trail.

06 May 2009, Milford, PA
I pulled into Milford right at 6:00 PM. After fitting a full work week into two-and-a-half days I could now shift my focus to helping the Sapsuckers scout the northern New Jersey counties for the Big Day competition, which kicked off in a mere 54 hours.

First problem: where was everyone?

The others arrived in Jersey between the Sunday and Tuesday before the Big Day. Priorities change minute by minute so the plan was for me to call the other northern scouts when I left Ithaca to find out the latest. As I headed south on I-81 former Sapsucker captain Ken Rosenberg (Director of Conservation Science), debuting in an advisory role, relayed the birds he was listening to in the Delaware Water Gap as we talked.

"When you arrive - Cerulean - at the motel, why don't you - Worm-eating - give a call - Blackburnian - and we'll figure - another Cerulean - out where to send you." Giddiness kicked in, I pressed the accelerator a bit harder. For someone who birds sporadically and briefly, immersing myself into solid birding for two days of spring migration was going to be heaven.

When I arrived at the Milford Motel the clerk had no idea who I was, and more importantly had no reservation for me. I started to wonder if I should be in Milford, NJ instead of Milford, PA, though the NJ one is a bit far south for where I'd be scouting. Eventually it all worked out, I was in the right place, now I just needed for someone to get back into cell phone range. Rather than wait in a lonely motel room I crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey to re-visit my old stomping grounds. I'd scouted Sussex county extensively between 2000 - 2004, and I was anxious to see what changed.

Not much, it turned out. Really, everything looked familiar. The soundscape was subdued, the evening chorus quiet compared to what the morning would bring. This evening held a Hermit Thrush's song here, a Blue-headed Vireo's there, but mostly quiet. I finally got word to meet the crew at the Sussex Queen Diner at 8:00 PM for the daily debriefing and to receive scouting assignments. Almost an afterthought, we could grab a bite, too.

Because of the way roads are laid out in this area it's a slow, winding meandering to get anywhere in Sussex county. I stopped at a small marsh in High Point State Park to listen for anything interesting. I verified a Yellow Warbler singing its secondary song, one that mimics a Chestnut-sided Warbler, while cars blew past the turn off. When one turned in I guessed it would be another WSB-affiliated birder. Birders from all teams are crawling all over the northern counties, concentrating on a target areas. Much like a fall out of songbirds in a patch of good habitat, you can get congregations of birders at these hotspots.

I was right. The car stopped, and there was Ken. Not just any WSB-affiliated birder, but the one I was looking for. We caught up for a few moments, then headed off independently for a couple last minute checks before meeting at the diner. Ken sent me to a small wetland to find out if any marsh birds were calling, he followed up on a report of needed birds at a different marsh. His site was a bust, I couldn't find my site at all. Using the New York DeLorme to get around northern NJ might not be a good idea.

Thirty minutes later I walked into the diner. Current Sapsuckers Marshall Iliff (eBird Project Leader) and Tim Lenz (eBird programmer) were poring over their NJ atlases, Ken highlighting historic territories of some much-needed species. Lewis Grove (fellow scout, flight-call researcher), was relaying his experiences from the day to Sapsucker Andrew Farnsworth (project leader on flight-call research and terrestrial acoustic monitoring). All looked somewhat frazzled, and it was only Wednesday.

Cloud-covered moon over New JerseyClouds rolled in covering a near, but not quite, full moon.
Unfortunately, they brought rain. A lot of rain.

Over dinner the Sapsuckers explained the strategy they were planning for this year and where some key birds were staked out. Around 9:30 I headed out for my evening assignment: visit three sites known to have Northern Saw-whet Owls, listening for any spontaneous calling. Saw-whets are certainly present in NJ in May, but whether they'll call during the time allotted for a stop is always questionable.

Given I just had to stand quietly and listen it was a relatively easy evening. The hard part was standing in a steady downpour, at times torrential, listening from the narrow shoulder of the road. Traffic was minimal, but each time a car approached my mind wandered to every horror story and urban legend I ever heard. I recalled a disproportionate number of them that take place on rainy nights on isolated roads.

The rain let up a bit at my second stop, where I parked and hiked in to the site. It was startlingly black, no town lights, street lights, headlights; no moon or stars. Half a mile later I didn't hear any owls, probably because no owls called, possibly due to a loss of hearing when I crossed a wetland full of Spring Peepers. The third stop was equally unproductive for owls, but helped me reorient myself to some sites I'd be visiting again in daylight hours for different birds.

When I returned to Milford (PA) it was nearly midnight. I reviewed my plan for the next morning, which would start by listening for Ruffed Grouse at 5:30, a perfectly reasonable time of the morning. Previous years started much earlier. The extra sleep would be welcome.


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

New Blog on the Block: Earbirding

earbirding.com header

In the "this just in" department, via Bill Schmoker at Brdpics, comes a new blog that promises to be not only interesting, but cutting edge: Earbirding.com. The blog's author, Nathan Pieplow, not only takes birding by ear to new levels, but revisits old levels and clarifies them. Or at least prompts discussions to try to. Friends, Romans, and Countrymen, lend him your ears at Earbirding.com.


Monday, June 1, 2009

Collecting vs. Reporting

The theme in my life, both at work and on the homefront, is that collecting always outpaces processing. Does anyone find themselves finished with everything and nothing left to work with? At work we're extremely proficient at collecting sound recordings, but we lag behind in our ability to analyze and interpret those recordings (something we're working on).

At home, I'm extremely proficient at collecting experiences with birds and nature along with photos, but I lag way behind in processing and contextualizing them into blogworthy accounts. (Twitter seems like a world I should adopt, as it takes way less than 148 seconds to post a 148 character tweet. Alas, brevity is not my strong suite.).

So, I owe, I owe, I'll be blogging soon again I know. In the meantime, here are a few shots I've collected from the past few weeks. Oh, and check out a guest post I wrote for "Puerto Rico Month" on 10000Birds.com. (Note to self: quite giving away blog posts to other sites . . . ).

Black-capped Chickadee nesting in Paper BirchBlack-capped Chickadees nesting in an American White Birch (Betula papyrifera) snag.

Grasshopper SparrowA Grasshopper Sparrow surveys his territory, if he can hold on to it.

Common YellowthroatA male Common Yellowthroat attempts to attract a mate.

Dark-eyed JuncoA Dark-eyed Junco taking a break from feeding nestlings.

Cedar WaxwingA Cedar Waxwing keeps a wary eye on an intruder (me).

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